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Water use study isn't enough, but would be a good first step

January 06, 2004

After hearing an expert warn that West Virginia was only one of two states on the East Coast with no plan to manage its water resources, state Sen. John Unger began work on a bill to fix that.

The measure drew flak from many who reasoned that just because something bad hasn't happened yet, it probably never would. But citizens should thank the Berkeley County lawmaker for his persistence, because as the law stands now, there's nothing to prevent a new, out-of-state company from coming in and completely draining a stream.

Unger's bill would have required companies which use more than 100,000 gallons a day to register, pay a fee and submit reports.

The West Virginia Chamber of Commerce and others favor the present common-law method of water allocation, which allows those alongside a stream to draw a "reasonable" amount of water. Disputes over what's reasonable would be settled through lawsuits.

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In an attempt to compromise the differences, a joint select committee of the legislature has worked on the problem for more than a year. On Friday the Associated Press reported that the draft the panel is working on would concentrate on assessing current water use. It would survey those who draw at least 750,000 gallons per month from streams and springs.

It would also create a 10-member commission and a 15-member advisory panel that would spend the next three years studying whether a water-management plan is needed.

If that seems like a long time to discuss an idea with so much merit, it's not because it would take three years to answer the question, but because it might take that long to persuade some of the opponents that change is needed.

We recommend that if the "more study" option is the only one that can win approval now, the legislature should go with it. Then the new commission should begin looking at what's happened in other states that didn't have water-management plans.

Change is difficult and just as the idea of zoning usually doesn't get public support until someone proposes something like a go-kart track next door to a nursing home, proponents of water management may have to unearth a few horror stories to get the public behind the idea.

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